Nov 17, 2010

The history of barefooting

Who would have thought that the concept of barefooting could be sold to us by a shoe company?

Nevertheless, this is what is happening right before our eyes. From the Nike Free to Vibram’s Fivefingers, from Merrell’s Gloves to Vivo Barefoot’s Evo - there is a brand for every taste when it comes to going barefoot, but with shoes on.

When it comes down to the bare necessities of what a human being needs on his or her feet, it should come of little surprise that, like any other animal foot, the human foot doesn’t need a shoe.

In fact, Dr William A Rossi wrote in Podiatry Management: 'Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person.'

This is why most companies espousing the benefits of barefooting cite, somewhere in their literature, the benefits of minimalism, sensory fulfilment, good unsupported ‘work’ and the argument of human evolution.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is for this very same reason that a Christian website recently described a pair Vibram Fivefingers as: 'God’s shoes - they allow the foot to function in the way God intended.' Evolutionist, creationist or intelligent 'designist', it seems we could all be onto a winner.

And the barefoot arguments seem to hold increasingly true if you have grown up without shoes. For example, research shows that children who grow up in shoeless environments have stronger, healthier feet with better arch development than those from more 'cultured' climes. But what about if you have grown up wearing supportive, cushioned shoes and now want to go barefoot?

Boredom is one thing you will not experience when walking barefoot; the sensory feast that you engage with is delectable, for some even over-stimulating. The benefits of this sensory bombardment, rather than the sensory deprivation that is the norm these days, is that the very nerves that return to your nervous system from the foot connect with the nerves that tell your leg how to behave - whether to pronate or supinate, whether to medially rotate or laterally rotate. Inhibit the information coming in, and you can only expect inhibited performance going out.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that while the foot is perfectly capable of supporting itself for optimal function, to go barefoot is not necessarily the answer to all of man’s ills.

Some would have you believe that barefooting can cure everything from ankle sprain to Achilles tendinopathy, from an inflamed lower back to inflammatory bowel disease, and from shin splints to osteoporosis.

While there is certainly merit in some of these claims, it is more in the field of prevention than cure, and each of these maladies is multifactorial. Hence, changing just one factor may be enough to reduce symptoms, but is unlikely to fully address the cause.

Why the resistance to barefooting? Barefoot Ted, of best-selling book Born To Run notoriety, suggests that barefoot is seen by many as the 'untethered beast' - and he may not be far off the mark.

It turns out the soles of the feet are made from the very same embryological tissue as the hands, genitalia, nipples and the eyes. No wonder, then, that they are literally used to scan the ground in real time.

But to return to Barefoot Ted’s point, note which of these tissues are exposed (hands and eyes) and which are routinely covered (genitalia, nipples and feet). Is it surprising, then, that there is a slight sense of unease when the foot is left fully exposed in public?

Of course, there is further resistance from those with a vested interest in keeping the foot adorned, and in particular from those who profess an in-depth knowledge of biomechanics, among them running shoe manufacturers and prescribers of orthotics.

It would be foolish to claim there is no place for orthotics or anti-pronation devices in running shoes, but based on the highest quality research studies, it would similarly be foolish to claim that such interventions serve a predictable response in users. Indeed, a recent admission in a study published in June this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, co-authored by Gordon Valiant from the Nike Sports Research Laboratory, stated:

'...despite over 20 years of stability elements being incorporated in running footwear there is, as yet, no established clinically-based evidence for their provision.'

The high-end, independent, published research literature shows they do not. Orthotics, much like crutches, can be important to allow something to rest, or to support a broken structure while it mends, but just as a headache is not caused by an 'aspirin deficiency', foot problems are not caused by an 'orthotics deficiency'.

There are many in the higher echelons of podiatry and biomechanics who are beginning to recognize the flaws of an orthotics-based response to foot problems. A recent discussion with someone who has worked at that high end of podiatry for many years and, in the space of just a couple of months, has turned his practice around from 95 per cent orthotic prescription and five per cent rehab patients to five per cent orthotic prescription and 95 per cent barefoot exercise-based rehabilitation, reveals a gradual shift in professional attitudes around this topic.

Similarly, another discussion with a sub-four minute miler, who has both practical as well as theoretical experience, also supports the 21st century realisation that most dysfunctional feet are weak feet and need effective strengthening - the very antithesis of the old 20th century view that weak feet need supporting. The latter may be true in a tiny percentage of cases where the foot is truly 'broken', but in most cases supporting a weakened structure can only make it weaker in the long term.

Think plaster casts and arms. If you identified a weakness in someone’s arm, you would want to give the person exercises to correct the problem - not a plaster cast to protect them just in case they fall. To do this would only weaken them further, and create unnecessary bulk and load they’d have to swing around with them all day long. However, if that arm was truly broken - a fractured bone or dislocated joint - you would want to support it, but only for a period of six weeks or so, and even in that timeframe you would lose around 40 per cent of the arm's muscle mass. The same basic physiology applies to the foot.

Much like the game of golf, when performance is measured across the last 50-60 years overall levels of performance have remained largely the same, and at the sub-elite level have actually worsened.

This focus on extrinsic devices (carbon shafts, anti-pronation bars, micro-dimpled balls, air pads, super enhanced sweet spots, hyper flex points and intra-sole microchips) it seems, may have been misguided.

Perhaps not only misguided, but also diametrically opposed to the emerging truth - that the most important aspects of sports performance are intrinsic factors.

This is why when you run barefoot you are using the most advanced bipedal technology to have ever been developed - the human foot. Some have said, to think otherwise would be very disrespectful to evolution. Whether it is evolution or a higher force, it surely doesn’t matter too much. Either way, the foot was surely designed with function in mind.

BLOC Systems Ltd

BLOC Systems Ltd

6 Birtley Court Yard, Bramley Road, Surrey , GU5 OLA

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